We continue our presentation of Johan Soderbergh’s book with a last excerpt about perhaps the key concept of the book: Play Struggle.
“The notion of hackers becoming ‘revolutionaries just for fun’ would have appealed to the eighteenth century poet Friedrich Schiller. Disappointed by the failure of the French Revolution, he sat down to ponder over how to make it work better the next time. Friedrich Schiller saw the ‘aesthetic play-drive’ as the primary force which could foster a more wholesome human being, whose maturing would also create and be able to sustain a post-revolutionary aesthetic state. Schiller meant that the aesthetic education of man was necessary to heal the rift within man caused by specialisation: “[. . .] If man is ever to solve the problem of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom.” Both adherers and critics of Schiller have pigeonholed him in the tradition of romanticism. Marxist scholars have followed Marx’s lead and passed over Schiller’s work as a footnote in German, idealist philosophy. The noteable exception was Herbert Marcuse. He declared his indebtedness to the old poet for his own life-long investigation into the liberating potential of aesthetics and play. Shiller’s philosophy ought to be reclaimed from the fine art scene and high-browed poetry. It would do him more justice if his words were applied to the politics that flow from the ‘beauty of the baud’ and the play with source code in the computer underground.
Herbert Marcuse is best known for deploring the one-dimensional rationality of technology. Today, with the rise of a ‘creative industry’ and a cultural economy, art, language, and fantasy too have been put to work and incorporated in instrumentalist thinking. Conversely, however, technology is aestheticised and put to play. A hacker does not speak about a program script in terms of functionality. Neat source code is a matter of good taste. Aesthetics is the organising principle of their play, which, mostly by accident, also produces working computer applications. A paraphrase of Friedrich Schiller can underline the ramifications of what just has been said: The object of hackers’ play is the beauty of the baud and its goal is software freedom. This reasoning is also consistent with how Marcuse envisioned that the instrumentality of technology could be resolved in modern society. Technology had to be returned to its origin in craftsmanship. Since the day when techne was split between useful arts and fine art proper, technological development has been defined by utilitarianism, while poetry has been relegated to the domain of the unreal and inconsequential. At least that is how things generally come across. A closer look will reveal that a play element has persisted throughout the history of technology. To the side of industrial and military innovations, there have also been innovations made purely for the sake of amusement. These technologies flourished in the renaissance courts. It was here that engineers of the day found their outlet since they were kept at bay from entering the industry by trade guilds. Architecture, gardens, water works, pyrotechnics, and automata are some examples. Moreover, to the list can be added cabinets, bestiaries, and scientific experiments that were as much performed as researched. It is this marginal and aristocratic lineage of technological development that has been picked up, and, to some degree, democratised, by hackers, by radio amateurs, and hobbyists.
The first generation of hackers nurtured a dream of making computer resources accessible. Members in the Homebrew Computer Club envisioned a small computer ‘able to run on the kitchen table’. They were in part motivated by a desire to play with those machines; in part they were aware of the political importance of democratising computer technology. Present-day hackers pursue the same mixture of play and politics within the technological platform of small computers and open-edited software handed down to them by the first generation. The passion for writing software code is contagious and easily spills over to other fields of doing. A popular sideline within the computer underground is to build mechanical replicas of classic computer games and exhibit these gadgets at hacker conferences. The step is a short one to more ambitious hardware projects, such as the OScar project. It is a collaboration between car engineers and tinkerers to design an ‘open source car’. What is gradually taking shape within the hacker movement at this moment is an extension of the dream that was pioneered by the members of the Homebrew Computer Club. It is the vision of a universal factory able to run on the kitchen table. The idea is not as far-fetched as it first might seem. Development trends towards flexible production within industry are pushing in the same direction. Researchers at the MIT laboratory, for instance, have experimented with computer-aided manufacturing facilities small enough to fit into a single room and easy enough to operate by lay people after a short, introductory course. The facility can be used to cut, solder, cast, compress, etc. almost any material into a finished product. Likewise, a group of engineers in Brighton try to construct a ‘self-replicating ‘rapid prototyper’ that can mould everyday items out of plastic. The performance and significance of these research projects are open to dispute. In most cases, hardware developed from below will proceed through the novel combination of mass-produced, off-the-shelf electronic parts. More important than the individual technologies is that these dreams are now being articulated. This is not how cadres of revolutionaries visualised the ‘expropriation of the expropriators’. Nonetheless, the desire for a ‘desktop factory’ amounts to the same thing as the reappropriation of the means of production. The seizure is unfolding as new productive relations are being invented in play.”
Book: Johan SÃ¶derberg. Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Movement. Routledge, 2007